Putting Women First


A version of this story ran in the March 2012 issue.

The Martinez Street Women’s Center supports the health and well-being of low-income women and girls in east and southeast San Antonio. Assistant Director Becca Najera is part of the small staff that promotes breast cancer and diabetes awareness, and organizes positive-parenting classes for women and after-school and summer programs for 9- to 14-year-old girls. Najera joined the center eight years ago, beginning as a community health worker, or promotora, going door-to-door to promote women’s wellness.

“The first project I started working on was the breast cancer awareness project … super cut out for someone like me, because I lived it. My mother is one of eight sisters, and she lost her battle with breast cancer when I was young. To date, five of my mother’s sisters have fought and won the battle with cancer. Two are in treatment right now. … I found it astounding that Hispanics and African-Americans are least likely to develop this disease, but most likely to die.

“It’s because we don’t have access to as much health care, and there may not be as much cultural sensitivity in the health care system, so a woman may not ask a doctor for a clinical breast exam. She may feel uncomfortable, and mammograms are financially unattainable for women in this community because they [can’t] pay out-of-pocket.

“Everybody’s needs in a family supersede a woman’s needs; she puts herself last, so we started to look at her obstacles. We looked at the community women and thought, ‘OK, so they can’t get to the doctor and transportation is always an issue. Even if we get an appointment, how do they get there, and who watches their children?’

“Every third Tuesday we host a breast cancer awareness clinic. … Doctors come here and we pitch it as an event you would not want to miss, coupled with a breast cancer bingo game. While we’re playing, we send patients over 40, or with signs and symptoms at any age, back to see doctors to get a clinical breast exam in our executive director’s office, which becomes the clinic. Who doesn’t love bingo? Such a fun way to really introduce education and not feel like it is a clinical or class setting.

“We inherit all the follow-up work, but it is important people find medical homes so their health history is housed somewhere. A clinical breast exam is not enough; the woman has to get the mammogram, so we turn into stalkers and call once a week for six weeks to see if they got their mammogram. … We help navigate them through the system.

“We serve 15,000 women annually and focus on seven ZIP codes based on the mortality rates of breast cancer, incidences of diabetes, childhood obesity. … Because we are so small and because we have a modest budget but robust programming, we really keep our finger on the pulse of the community to address issues they are experiencing in real time. We go to laundromats, churches, grocery stores, front doors, and we will continue to have contact with you as much as you permit us.

“We have services like a parenting class and a diabetes class that could potentially be transformative for your family, and we provide child care and a healthy meal for all of our programming. If a woman has to cook a meal at home, she won’t leave the kitchen to come over here to do stuff for herself.

“Women are the transformative element in a family. If a woman decides things will happen differently, then things will happen differently in that family, because she controls what she purchases. What foods she feeds her children determine what diseases they have to look [out] for, or what [diseases] they are preventing. If we can affect this woman … can we affect [her daughter]? That girl is going to be the future.”